Sept. 28 (UPI) -- The World Health Organization on Tuesday announced its first-ever global strategy to eliminate meningitis -- a plan that aims to cut cases in half and reduce deaths by 70% by the end of the decade.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord and is predominantly caused by bacterial or viral infections.
The WHO said the strategy could save 200,000 lives per year and greatly reduce disabilities caused by the bacterial form of the disease.
"Wherever it occurs, meningitis can be deadly and debilitating; it strikes quickly, has serious health, economic and social consequences, and causes devastating outbreaks," WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.
"It is time to tackle meningitis globally once and for all -- by urgently expanding access to existing tools like vaccines, spearheading new research and innovation to prevent, detecting and treating the various causes of the disease, and improving rehabilitation for those affected."
Bacterial meningitis causes about 250,000 deaths each year and can lead to fast-spreading epidemics. The WHO says it kills one out of every 10 people who get it -- mostly children and young people -- and leaves about 20% with a lasting disability like seizures and vision loss.
"We must be united in our efforts to end all preventable childhood diseases, including bacterial meningitis," Dr. Aboubacar Kampo, UNICEF director of health programs, added in a statement.
"UNICEF has been supporting governments for decades, facilitating the delivery of life-saving meningitis vaccines. Still, far too many children are succumbing to this and other preventable diseases."
There are several vaccines that protect against meningitis, but the WHO says many communities don't have access to them and some countries don't include them in their national health programs.